Old allies Mourinho and Rodgers set for period of intense rivalry
The Prickly One and his former apprentice have shared a mutual respect over years
Rodgers and his erstwhile boss Mourinho are friends of many years, having worked together at Chelsea. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Early Friday afternoon at Cobham and Jose Mourinho is bristling. The tone at his first domestic pre-match press conference for three weeks had come pre-warned by the communications director’s introductory reminder that there were “a couple of Football Association charges pending”, a gentle nudge as to which subjects might ideally be avoided.
Questions lobbed from the floor were dismissed abruptly, the curt responses covering topics from weakened selections at Anfield tomorrow, via David Moyes’s sacking, to his own coded suggestion last month that Luis Suarez should be considered “King of Penalties”. The answers were hardly more effusive for the written media, even if flashes of a smile offered fleeting reminders of the self-styled Happy One of last summer.
The second FA charge, for his assessments of Mike Dean’s display last Saturday and Mike Riley’s performance as head of elite refereeing, did crop up. “I told the referee he was amazing, and I repeat: he was amazing,” he said. He was aware of an Englishman’s penchant for a spot of sarcasm, presumably? “So Mr Bean is in jail . . . ”
That was an insight into his frustration at the authorities’ rather humourless take on those post-match comments, but it was about the best of the soundbites offered up, with the same brevity of response delivered even when it came to his protege making good. What of Brendan Rodgers, the man in whom he had spotted a kindred spirit a decade ago before making him his first external appointment at Stamford Bridge? “I don’t have to speak about him,” offered the Portuguese. “He’s my friend
. . . I don’t have to be speaking about him to you.” But has the Northern Irishman’s success at Liverpool been partly down to his schooling under Mourinho. “No. I think he’s a good manager because of him.”
Theirs is the subplot to the thunderous collision on Merseyside, a meeting of master and apprentice. Their friendship stretches back to the summer of 2004, when Mourinho arrived from Porto and sought a like-minded coach to play a major role in his academy. Rodgers was highly regarded at Reading, who had played Chelsea in pre-season.
His thirst for self-improvement came across well in interview, with the first-team manager impressed the coach had taken it upon himself to learn Spanish having recognised it would be beneficial in his career further down the line.
Mourinho recognised ambition and potential, a coach 10 years his junior who, like him, had endured an inauspicious playing career. “I had a vision and philosophy well in place, and I was asked to go to Chelsea to implement that,” said Rodgers. “They saw me as someone with a European philosophy: I always saw it as a fusion between European football and British mentality. Jose didn’t have the protection of being a big player to get his opportunity. He had to go down a different route and he gave me the confidence you can become a leader in your field by doing that. Our ideas on football weren’t exactly the same, but I saw how he dealt with players, how he gained their respect, and I learned.”
The intrigue lies in what happens to the pair’s friendship from now on in, with each in charge of a team in contention. Mourinho has seen other members of his entourage progress and establish themselves as managers in their own right.
Steve Clarke and Aitor Karanka have taken on roles, with West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough, though neither posed a threat to their mentor in terms of title races or silverware. His relations with Andre Villas-Boas became somewhat more strained, his scout having flown the nest prematurely to pursue a similar progression elsewhere – Academica to Porto back home and, most eye-catchingly, to Stamford Bridge – and, at the time, his Tottenham Hotspur had appeared to pose a threat last summer. Their friendship was probably wrecked already, but it was never likely to be repaired in direct opposition.
Potentially fraught future
The danger here is that, while Rodgers and Mourinho still appear close, could they not be consumed by the intensity of the rivalry being rekindled between Liverpool and Chelsea?
It did for any respect once enjoyed by Rafael Benitez and Mourinho during the latter’s first spell in England. The Spaniard has recalled an amicable conversation shared on the stairs at Anfield after Chelsea’s 1-0 Premier League victory on New Year’s Day in 2005, a result which left the London club top and 18 points clear of sixth-placed Liverpool. Their menace was distant. Then came the League Cup final and, most explosively of all, the Champions League semi-finals. “Our ‘good’ relationship was over,” wrote Benitez in his autobiography. “He had identified us as a team who could stop him achieving all that he wanted.”
Even last December, when Chelsea overcame Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, accepted wisdom was Rodgers’s team may struggle to sustain a challenge. Their charge over this calendar year has provoked regular reminders from Mourinho that Liverpool benefit without the onerous demands of European football. That will place its own strain on the friendship between those in the dugouts. For now, feeling gagged by the FA and undermined by the Premier League, Mourinho has other issues to darken his mood.